Celtics-Heat series is shaping up to be a battle for the ages

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Old NBA Axiom No. 101 holds that a playoff series doesn't start until the road team wins a game.

This would mean that the Celtics-Heat conference semifinal, which stands, 2-1, in favor of the Heat, has yet to begin.

I disagree. This thing is on. I've already seen Rajon Rondo playing with a dislocated elbow. I've seen James Jones come off the bench to torch the Celtics with 25 points. I've seen Paul Pierce ejected for two techs in one game. I've seen Dwyane Wade drop 38 on the Celtics and LeBron James stuff Kevin Garnett in a final-minute summit meeting in Game 2. I've even seen NBA dinosaur Shaquille O'Neal lumber up and down the court in what certainly has to be his final season.

We hooted on the Celtics for being too old when they were twice thrashed in Miami, but the Green came home Saturday night and played it best game in months in a 97-81 win on the fabled parquet floor.

"That was a championship response,'' said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "No other real way to put it. They played harder than us and more efficiently than us. And they've earned that pedigree of the battles and wars that they've been in the last four years, where we're trying to get to. We're trying to take down a champion and it will be one of the toughest things we have to do collectively."

The series is every bit as good as we hoped. It represents the end of the Celtics and the beginning of the Heat; a great champion in decline and a future champ on the rise. The question remains: Will the torch be passed this week, or will the Game 3 Celtics spank the young Heat again and force them to wait another year before they take their place atop NBA East?

There was a rush to crown the Heat after their performance in the first two games. It looked like the little brothers were finally ready to overtake the big brothers. We counted the dog years of NBA play in the Celtics' starting lineup -- four starters (Garnett, Pierce, Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal) with an aggregate 59 NBA seasons of wear and tear. That's almost 15 years per man. Yikes.

Put that up against King James and D-Wade, two superstars in their absolute athletic prime. No contest, right? Time for the Celtics to go off into the sunset and watch the Heat in the Finals.

Not quite. Before Saturday's game, Garnett said, "This is it. We've used up all our lifelines.''

Boston coach Doc Rivers added, "I always expect greatness. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't.''

He got it in Game 3. Tired of being buried in the media and embarrassed by the likes of Chris Bosh, proud Garnett was a man possessed, hitting 13 of 20 shots for 28 points and grabbing 18 rebounds.

Asked for his reaction to Garnett's performance, Spoelstra took a ride on the Way Back Machine and said, "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.''

It was a remarkable response from the young coach. Spoelstra was talking about Kareem's dominant Game 2 at Boston Garden in the 1985 NBA Finals. Jabbar had been mocked after the Celtics won Game 1 by a hideous score of 148-114. A wise guy Boston Globe beat reporter (me) compared the aging Kareem with Willie Mays falling down when he played for the Mets in the 1973 World Series. In the next game, Jabbar had 30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks in a Laker victory. The Lakers wound up winning in six, in Boston, and Jabbar was series MVP. If you ask him, he will tell you that it was the highlight of his professional basketball career -- winning a championship against the Celtics in Boston.

"Everybody was throwing dirt on Kareem,'' recalled Spoelstra. "And while all this fuel was going on ... I was cringing. Garnett has been one of the best players in the league since he was a rookie and he is very proud.''

Here in 2011, there's a living link to the 1985 Finals. His name is Pat Riley. He is the man who assembled this Heat team. He is the man who hates the Celtics more than any team in sports. Like Jabbar, Riley will tell you that the highlight of his NBA career was winning in Boston, in Red Auerbach's face, in 1985.

Now Riley's Heat are trying to do the same thing.

Monday's Game 4 should tell us where this series is going. If the Celtics win, I like the Celtics to ultimately win a game in Miami and take the series. Another win by Boston in Game 4 means the Celtics still hold a psychological edge against the young Heat.

Miami needs to make a statement. If LeBron and D-Wade win Monday, look for them to close it out Wednesday in Miami, then win the NBA championship.